Obama Hits Mitt Where It Hurts

The latest advertisement from the Obama campaign—which will air in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia—is, so far, the most important one of the president’s re-election effort. Take a look:

This is a brutal attack on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, and far more effective than anything launched by the former Massachusetts governor’s Republican opponents in the GOP primary. The workers are given space to speak for themselves, and the result is a focus on the human toll of Romney’s career. The ad insinuates that this is what a Romney presidency has in store for America. When coupled with continued emphasis on Romney’s opposition to the auto bailouts, it presents Romney as a cold, cruel plutocrat.

Here’s why this is crucial. If President Obama has built his“ brand” around honesty and likeability, then Mitt Romney is trying to center his on competence; you may not like the former Massachusetts governor—you may not even trust him—but you know that he can fix the United States, and turn around the ship. It’s why he focuses so heavily on his career in venture capitalism, and why—as Politico describes—this morning, the Romney campaign is devoted to “steadily building up Romney as a safe and competent alternative to President Barack Obama.”

Indeed, the idea that Romney is competent is key to building a perception of moderation for the GOP nominee. In American politics—or at least, the coverage thereof—“moderation” is tied to affect. In truth, Howard Dean was a left-leaning centrist, but his loud opposition to George W. Bush made him an “extremist.” On the other end, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan wants to drastically reshape government with low taxes on the wealthy, and deep cuts to programs for the poor, sick, and infirm. But because of his affable, wonkish persona, he’s perceived as a mainstream figure, despite how radical his agenda is. Romney is on the Paul Ryan side of the ledger, with a budget plan that would shred the social safety net. He needs voters to see him as a reasonable and competent steward of their affairs, and not as a stalking horse for the right-wing.

The Obama ad (and its corresponding website, Romneyeconomics.com) is a direct attack on Romney’s competence. In much the same way as Karl Rove, the campaign is trying to turn Romney’s strength—his private-sector experience—into a weakness. “Yes, Governor Romney was a skilled generator of wealth, but he did so at the cost of families like yours. Just imagine what he’ll do in the White House.” The Romney campaign has been trying to do the same to the president—and may well succeed—but for now, it’s a half-step when compared to this effort.

The good news for Romney is that voters are willing to accept his claim to competence. In the most recent survey from Pew, Romney wins 48 percent of those who say that jobs are the most important issue in this election. Likewise, according to Gallup, 61 percent say that Romney would do a “good or very good job” of handling the economy if elected president.

The bad news, however, is that Obama has space for his message; according to NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 71 percent say that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who says “America is better off when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules,” and 76 percent say that they are more likely to vote for someone who promises to “fight for balance and fairness and encourage the investments needed to grow our economy and strengthen the middle class.” This is the core of Obama’s message, and one of the themes highlighted in his attack on Bain Capital.

The last time Romney was in a close election with a formidable opponent, Bain Capital proved to be the decisive factor in his defeat. I doubt will see a repeat of that, but even still, the Romney campaign can’t be happy about Obama’s compelling attack on the governor’s most vital asset.